Thursday, June 02, 2005

Psychedelic Science - How to Prepare

Dear Dr. Shulgin:

I would like to ask a question based on your answer to the "Juul's Giant" question. Where and with whom would a botany student have to study to specialize in the area of isolating psychedelic compounds from plants? You mentioned having to be competent in Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Botany at the same time. Of the people doing this work, is there anybody interested in passing on his or her knowledge to the next generation? How large is the scientific community concerned with these questions? - Curiosity

Dear Curiosity:

Let me try to answer you with a total rephrasing of your question.

Let us say that you are a gifted student of the cello, and you would like to know where you should extend your studies to become part of the larger community. You can study conducting, or orchestration, or harmonic analysis, and become a specialist in the area of music. Music is an overall concept, that is the bringing together of all these academic disciplines into a single entity. The psychedelic world is just such a entity. It integrates chemistry, botany and pharmacology into a similar multidisciplinary union. Be familiar with the vocabulary and the ambitious goals being sought by those involved in each of these disciplines. You must take classes so as to know the languages used in these areas, and thus be able to communicate with the experts in these many fields, but you must always remain open to new information from unexpected directions.

As a botanist, you have certainly encountered the academic territorial conflicts that can accompany the identification of a new psychoactive plant. The morphotaxonimist will define the active plant by its appearance and the chemotaxonimist will define the active plant by its composition, but the ultimate definition should require the knowledge of the actual activity of the plant, in an animal or man. This requires the skills of yet another observer. This is a person who, through his own art, has developed over the years a knowledge of the pharmacology of the plant. I shall call him the pharmotaxonimist.

Let me cheat a bit here, and offer a bit of draft from "The Third Book," by me and Ann.I was recently told a neat anecdote that illustrates this "third" way of classifying plants. This involves the South American plant which has a native use as an aid to parturition. A botanist friend went on a field trip in the Brazilian Amazon specifically to collect samples of this plant to find out what it contained. He located the Curandero who was his information source, who pointed out the pharmacologically effective plants. He recognized them as being Cyperus prolixus and began collecting samples for his eventual analysis.

"No, no," said the Curandero, "Not those over there. These over here."

"But they are the same plant."

"Oh no, they are not the same plant. Those are not active. These are active."

"But they are the same plant. I know. I am a botanist."

"Oh no, they are not the same plant. I know. I am a Shaman."

That's not the actual exchange, of course, but it's the flavor of it. The botanist took samples of both the "over there" and the "over here" plants and found, to his surprise, that the Shaman had been absolutely correct. Plants from the two separate collections were morphologically identical in every detail but were pharmacologically very different. Some careful investigation showed that the active group had a fungal infection inside the plant itself. Well, not really an infection, but a colony living inside as an endophyte. It was inside the adult plant, and inside the fertile seed, and inside the new-born seedling. At no time was this ergot companion visible from outside the parent plant. This is exactly the type of information that would probably never come to light without a pharmacotaxonimist's help in the plant identification.

The bottom line is obvious. Learn your disciplines. Learn all the vocabulary. Know the published literature. But always be open to an unexpected source of information that just might enrich your understanding of why something does what it does. There are many Shamans scattered around the world. Search for them.

--Dr. Shulgin